Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Variety is More than Spice

It's been a long time coming, but I have to admit that it's true.

Diversity is a good thing.

Once in my college years I completed a business intership in a nursing home. As an intern, I was included in the daily staff meetings that the administration would have. Often, different employees would give presentations to teach us all about some new aspect of nursing home management. One day, one of the other interns passed out little plastic baggies with various nicknacks and baubles contained in them. The different items were supposed to be a teaching tool for the employees to embrace diversity in the workplace. Eye rolling and gagging gesticulations could not express strongly enough my disdain for such a display of overt political correctness.

I have changed my tune--almost completely. The political correctness still makes my eyes roll.

Diversity is actually a strengthening agent and something to be celebrated, not despised.

The problem is, much of the diversity that is out there is either seen as something subversive and damaging to the whole, or it is overlooked for wider brushstrokes on the canvas of life.

That's the problem with the Great Plains.

People view the Great Plains as "flyover states" between one coast and the other. (Cheryl Unruh has a wonderful site devoted to this very topic right here:http://www.flyoverpeople.net ). The dismissal of the Plains as only worth a small footnote in our culture is almost universally pandemic. Those of us who live here have a problem, too: we don't acknowledge and taut the rich mosaic of diversity and life that resides in and with the plains.

When you think of diversity, you generally don't come up with an "empty" grassland as the best example. We like big, action-packed things. We don't like seemingly static, empty things--even if they are full of infinite variety and diversity.

Take the dirt of the Great Plains.

The greatest resource that the Great Plains has is not its wind potential (although this is wonderful, too). It is not its hard working people or its rich cultural diversity from the first peoples who persevered in this place. It is something that is foundational to every other life system on the planet: the soil.

Soil filters water. Its nutrients allow plants to grow and root systems to mesh life together. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different chemicals and elements contained within it. The animals and people eat the plants that grow on it. They die and the nutrient cycle continues ad infinitum.

Aldo Leopold had a wonderful metaphor in 'A Sand County Almanac'. The "Round River" that flowed in a neverending circle was tended by Paul Bunyan in the folk tales of these parts. Although physics deny the literal existence of such a river, figuritively it makes a good discription of soil. The soil never runs out of stuff that makes it live and thrive! But only if the other things that are connected to that soil are healthy and thriving, too.

When a person thrusts a hand into the sod of the prairie, and rips out the top layer of soil, it is a piece of the collective life that resides there. If you put your nose up to the life in your hands and breathe deeply in, you will smell the sweet-pithy bouquet of diverse life that is there. It's more than the sum of the parts that make the whole. It is the whole itself. The soil IS alive! It's alive!
If you do the same in your front-yard monoculture of Kentucky Bluegrass, you will smell a combination of various chemicals and a slightly off, water-soaked cardboard smell. That's soil that has life in it, but it is not diverse, healthy life.

The person who taught me this is a farmer-rancher from Turtle Lake, North Dakota. Gene Goven got started a few decades ago trying to figure out how to get more cows in a parcel of land to feed on the grass without destroying the forage that was there. What he found was far more than he had planned for.

As it turns out, by mimicking the grazing patterns of Bison by the use of "cells" within different paddocks, and moving the cattle around to grind the carbon life back into the soil, the soil responds with more microbial diversity and more plant varieties. This, in turn, allows more tonnage of feed to be produced. That translates to sustainable larger herd sizes, which drives more carbon back into the soil. So the cycle of life and the sequestration of carbon creates one huge conglomerate of a life form called soil.

Gene also found out that the healthy, diverse soil was filtering water much better than the unhealty soils.

One season the Northern Plains got a proverbial "gully gusher" of a rain storm. Gene complained that all his neighbors stock ponds had filled up so quickly and their cows were all drinking already. His ponds, however, were still dry a day after the rain. (It had been a dry, hot year). Eventually, his ponds did fill up. The water, it turns out, was being filtered and used by the plants in the healthy, diverse soil. The diverse, healthy soil was 'catching more water where it fell.'

For an great read about diversity and Gene's system of rotational grazing go here: http://www.holisticmanagement.org/

Interestingly, farmers are finding that diversity is healthier for the soil, too. If you came to the plains eighty years ago, you would see the process of desertification gaining a foothold. The dust bowl happened for a reason: people didn't know the soil and its needs--that it needed diversity.

Now, many farmers (at least the ones who want to stay in business) are turning to so-called no-till farming. No-till seeks to allow residual matter on top of the soil over the winter to hold the soil in place. Instead of turning the dirt over with a plow in the spring, the farmers drill the seed directly into the stubble. The residue holds more water in place and keeps the soil from blowing into the next state. In addition to more diverse rotations and cropping, farmers have found their yields to increase four or five fold on a what a particular piece of ground would produce in the 20s and 30s. Diversity in farming has increased profits, benefitted wildlife and water retention, and just overall makes a lot more sense than turning everything over every year.

The interesting relationship between diversity and health with other life systems is uncanny. For instance: What happens when a society yearns to create a so-called pure, racially "superior" monoculture in a human nation?

You get a nightmare.

It is a twisted thing to think of Nazism as comparible to a whole field of leafy spurge on the prairie (a non-native invader destroying range land), but this is a fair comparison. Both the plant community and the Nazi society are choking the life out of their foundations. (The ironic thing about the Nazis is that even their high holy Fuehrer wasn't exactly the epitome of health, beauty and vigor to begin with.)

The prairie can teach America to claim her rich asset and empowering strength. Diversity and variety in human societies are as strengthening and healthy as thousands of different species of microbes, insects, grazers, grasses, legumes, forbs and sedges that the good Lord spreads like a mat across the land to the Rockies. We should think twice when we seek to continually change others to our way of thinking and acting.

Their differences, rather than a chink the armor or a weak link we despise, just might be enriching the whole in ways of which we never conceived.


Anonymous said...

You touch a chord with me.

Diversity is supposed to help us? No, it hurts us. Fine plants may like it, but that don't mean that a bunch of f*ggots in pink make us better. We are dragged down by you liberals.


Anonymous said...

Interesting analogy using the soil for us to observe growth and renewal. Unfortunately, many people have little relationship with the warm earth. I certainly can agree with the reference to the infinite details that makeup the plains states. We are, however, giving it away to technology and outmigration, so pioneer mentality is becoming harder to hold on to as good fabric for the soul. On the other hand, technology is bringing us global unity, which invites diversity and appreciation for each others special places in this world.

Anonymous said...

We lose 10,000 acres of land per day to development, so soon we are going to have nothing but houses, condos and Walmarts coast to coast. North Dakota should set up border guards, and require a fee and visa to come look at open space. We must perfect space travel so we can ship urban developers off to Mars...it is a planet just begging for luxury crater-side condos lined up as they vanish over the horizon. Farming in the future in North Dakota will consist of endless space ports, with rockets sending out soil to orbiting plant domes, and space trucks returning with fresh food.

Anonymous said...

Brocca's Brains uninformed anti-developer attitude sickens me. Developers only give people what they want...more concrete surfaces to look at. Most people understand that humans are sickened by the site of greenry and open space! And, what would realtors live on if they didn't have stuff to sell? Get a life BB-massive development is here to stay!

Anonymous said...

what a bunch of losers!

The Junkie said...

Well, I haven't dived into a Konza Biological Preserve entry yet, but you did get me riffing on diversity...

I did do a photo shoot at the preserve in Summer of 2004. You can see the tallgrass prairie here.